Reunion Bread Reopens in a Limited Capacity After Oven Explosion

The bakery’s artisanal breads will be unavailable until its custom oven can be replaced.
The bakery’s artisanal breads will be unavailable until its custom oven can be replaced. Dustin Bailey
The team at Reunion Bread thought metal sheet pans had fallen to the floor when they heard a loud bang around 6 a.m. on May 14 — Mother’s Day, which owner Ismael De Sousa says is the busiest day of the year at the five-year-old bakery located inside the Source at 3350 Brighton Boulevard. But they quickly discovered something far worse: Its school bus-sized bread oven had exploded and caught fire.

Fortunately, neither De Sousa nor his two staffers were harmed. “We immediately went to see what was happening, and we saw the fire," he recalls. "We grabbed the extinguishers and put the fire down in a matter of maybe a couple of minutes.”

The Denver Fire Department arrived on the scene soon after. The assumption, De Sousa says, is that the oven experienced a gas leak and an ignited spark caused the explosion.

John D. Chism, Captain and public information officer with the Denver Fire Department comments, "The fire on May 14th at Reunion Bread came in as a cooking fire. When our crews arrived, there was no fire. Our crews went on to search with our thermal imagers and gas meters to address any addition hazards on scene. It was determined that the crew needed to shut of the gas, however there was no additional mitigation that was needed from the Denver Fire Department. It did appear as though while the oven was warming there may have been a gas leak that eventually lead to the small explosion.

As far as the rest of the hotel, there were no concerns to the structural integrity of the building, there was no activation of smoke alarm or sprinkler system."
click to enlarge A bread oven sealed in plastic wrap
The bread oven that caught fire, now confined.
Reunion Bread
“This is something that's extremely rare. I’ve worked in bakeries for a long time. I never had an issue like this,” comments De Sousa. Since this was his first encounter with such a situation, he thought that Reunion Bread would be able to return to limited operations after what he believed to be a thorough cleanup, as its small convection ovens could still be used to craft its assortment of pastries.

But on May 19, the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) visited the bakery. "They said that after a fire, they need to give us a green light for reopening," De Sousa recalls. "They said usually after something like this happens, the fire department notifies them so they do an inspection right away. That did not happen."

Chism notes that "other than getting the oven replaced and getting the gas restored there were no protocols to pass on. Denver Fire will contact DDPHE if there is a sprinkler activation or dry chemical release. It is my understanding that Denver Fire did not contact DDPHE in this instance."

Amber Campbell, public information officer for DDPHE, says that it was made aware of the Reunion Bread fire on the evening of May 18. It responded to the location the following day to conduct a limited inspection.

"As we were preparing for the weekend, we were asked to shut down,” says De Sousa. He explains that all food items exposed to the May 14 incident were tossed, but that additional product had to be disposed of after the investigation. De Sousa estimates that between labor and cost of goods, damages incurred post-fire through May 19 total “at least $20,000, easy.”

Campbell reports, "The facility was ordered to cease all food handling operations after it was determined minimal cleaning had occurred in the five days since the incident. Burned insulation inside the oven was open and exposed in the middle of the facility, posing a direct contamination concern. Additionally, black residues consistent with soot/ash contamination were observed on food ingredients and equipment throughout the facility."
click to enlarge A group of bakers posing in front of baked goods in a kitchen
De Sousa, left, with the Reunion Bread staff.
Dustin Bailey
When Westword spoke with De Sousa on May 19, he and his crew were hard at work trying to remediate the situation. "We're doing a deep-cleaning of everything — literally everything from the ceiling down. [We're] making sure nothing has any soot or debris."

These efforts were promptly rewarded. "Our investigators have conducted follow-up inspections, and the facility was permitted to resume routine operations on May 21," Campbell says.

With the official go-ahead from the health department, Reunion was able to reopen on May 25, though operations are limited, with leavened bread on pause. Instead, the team is concentrating on pastries.

While business was shut down, Reunion also missed the Cherry Creek Fresh Market on May 20 — a first in its five years of selling there. “We are very popular at the Cherry Creek Market,” says De Sousa. “I love it. It's one of my outlets, if you will, because I go personally to the market and I get to meet new people. I get to see faces that I've seen for five years now.”

Several other major hurdles remain. Last week, De Sousa got a quote for a new, smaller bread oven, which will take four to five months to replace. The estimated cost is $100,000 to $120,000. De Sousa believes that insurance will not cover the entirety of Reunion Bread’s losses. He explains, “My property insurance limit is $70,000. So even if they were to cover my limit, it doesn't really cover the [entirety of damages].”
click to enlarge croissants on a pan before being baked
Reunion is back with a focus on pastries for now.
Dustin Bailey
Andy Bjerkhoel, a regular at Reunion Bread, and his family have started a GoFundMe to help De Sousa recover financially. Morgan Buchanan, Bjerkhoel’s sister-in-law, is the organizer of the campaign, which notes: “We need Reunion in our lives — not just for the bread, but for the community that Ismael and his team have created. Please help us get our people baking again!”

De Sousa admits that he was hesitant to get involved with a GoFundMe campaign. “It feels a little awkward to ask people for help. But if people feel like they want to help us out, we'll gladly take the help,” he says.

When he opened Reunion Bread five years ago, he adds, no other Denver bakery was creating small-batch artisanal breads and pastries with traditional European techniques — except for Babettes, which previously occupied the space at the Source and is currently located in Lafayette. His commitment to craft combined with an unusual blend of European methods and Venezuelan flavors earned him a 2023 James Beard nomination for Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker.

Now, De Sousa hopes his fans will continue to support the business by "getting a coffee, getting a croissant, getting whatever — everything helps.”

Reunion Bread is located inside the Source at 3350 Brighton Boulevard and, as of May 25, is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit
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